Dr. Gordon Perkin had already spent decades working to improve the health of the world’s poorest people by the time he crossed paths with William Gates Sr. in the late 1990s. But that encounter would be among the most impactful in Perkin’s long career.
The elder Gates was helping his multibillionaire son and daughter-in-law decide how to give away a fortune in philanthropic funding and was looking for expert guidance. Perkin became a trusted adviser who helped open the couple’s eyes to shocking health disparities around the globe, including the millions of children who die every year from preventable diseases.
Perkin, 85, who died Aug. 21 at Skyline Retirement Community in Seattle, went on to serve as the first director of global health for what became the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — the richest philanthropy organization in the world. Its priorities include many of the causes Perkin held dear, from reproductive health and childhood vaccination to the welfare and empowerment of women and girls.
“Gordon was a giant in public health,” said Dr. Mark Kane, a CDC epidemiologist recruited by Perkin to lead one of the first programs supported by the fledgling Gates Foundation — a $100 million children’s vaccine initiative.
Perkin was also instrumental in the creation of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. A partnership of the World Bank, The World Health Organization, governments, foundations and pharmaceutical companies, Gavi has helped vaccinate more than 760 million children in low-income countries, preventing an estimated 13 million deaths.
“Countless people are alive today because of Gordon’s efforts,” Bill and Melinda Gates said in a statement.
Perkin helped persuade the Gateses to kick-start the vaccine alliance with $750 million, which they quickly followed with another $750 million. “At that time, I think it was the largest grant ever given in the private sector,” said Kane. “It really blew us away, and Gordon was right in the middle of all that.”
A self-effacing physician from Canada, Perkin never sought recognition for the many innovations and initiatives he pioneered, even though they saved countless lives. He sometimes said: “There’s no limit to what can be accomplished as long as you’re not worried about who gets the credit,” said his son, Scott Perkin.
As co-founder of PATH, a Seattle nonprofit that started with three people in 1977 and is now among the biggest players in international health, Perkin and his team developed ingenious ways to adapt health technology for use in the developing world.
Among their inventions is a heat-sensitive label that allows medical workers to tell if a vaccine is still potent. Single-use syringes developed at PATH to reduce the risk of infection from dirty needles were recently revamped to deliver a contraceptive dose women can administer themselves. Perkin and his colleagues developed a simple, sanitary birthing kit with pictorial instructions for women who can’t read.
“It was a vision based on the belief that we could make modern medical advances available to people in poor countries by using technology to fit their needs,” Perkin told Seattle journalist Tom Paulson in 2001. “It turned out the technology was the easy part.”
“The hard part,” Paulson wrote in a remembrance of Perkin, “was convincing colleagues and big players like the World Health Organization or UNICEF that partnering with industry offered a powerful and sustainable option for helping the poor.”
But even though it was taboo then in the nonprofit world, Perkin and his colleagues thought it was vital to work closely with companies that knew how to develop and manufacture devices and drugs.
“Gordon was a remarkable blend of medical acumen, but also an entrepreneur at heart,” said Amy Carter, who worked with Perkin at PATH and the Gates Foundation.
Perkin always carried samples stuffed in his pockets and wouldn’t hesitate to pull out a vaccine vial or female condom — another PATH innovation — in the most formal setting, recalled Peggy Morrow, the organization’s first, full-time employee. He also carried index cards and would jot down notes when he saw an interesting device, like a scale for weighing babies, in a bazaar.
“He was always scanning for new ideas,” Morrow said. “And he was very much about what we would now call social equity, social justice.”
Unlike nonprofits that stack their boards with wealthy donors, PATH’s was made up of people from the countries where the organization worked, said co-founder Rich Mahoney. (The organization’s third co-founder, Gordon Duncan, died in 2016.)
A Seattle meeting orchestrated by Perkin with PATH board members from Bangladesh, Egypt, Zimbabwe and India was another influential milestone for the Gateses as they zeroed in on global health as the primary focus of their foundation.
Perkin served as PATH’s president from 1980 to 1999, during which the organization grew tremendously. But he remained a low-key, collaborative leader who treated his co-workers as equals and always credited their contributions. He never sat at the head of the table during staff meetings, Mahoney said.
“That just says so much about him as a human being.”
Perkin’s first experience with reproductive health came during medical school in Toronto, when he got a summer job selling contraceptives to medical offices. He practiced in a rural area for a few years, but always wanted to make a difference on a larger scale, said his son, Scott.
After stints with Ortho Pharmaceutical and Planned Parenthood, Perkin joined the Ford Foundation where he worked for 14 years across five countries — Thailand, Ghana, Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico. Because of all that moving, the family was very close-knit, his son said. “When everything else was always changing around us, we turned to each other for support.”
Perkin retired from the Gates Foundation in 2005, but never stopped working. The week before his death from lung cancer, he was fundraising for a hospital to treat women with childbirth injuries called fistulas. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to that effort via the Gordon Perkin Maternal Health Innovation Fund at the Terrewode Women’s Fund; to Planned Parenthood; or to the Gordon W. Perkin Endowment Fund at PATH.
In addition to sons Scott and Stuart, Perkin is survived by Elizabeth A. Perkin, his wife of 63 years, and two grandchildren.